You Are the Body

January 23rd, 2022 homily on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a by Pastor Galen

Greatest athletes of all time

Who were some of the greatest athletes of all time? Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky, Simone Biles, Serena Williams, Billie Jean King and many others would probably make the list. 

It’s amazing to watch a world-class athlete perform at the top of their game. We watch in awe as they seem to fly through the air, or hit the ball with amazing force or accuracy. Their names become household names, people pay good money to watch them perform, we buy their merchandise. They’re featured in video games and advertisements and commercials. In many ways we idolize them for their strength, their talents, and their endurance. To us it seems as though they have superpowers. 

In truth, the skills and athletic prowess of elite athletes are a combination of God-given talent, and hard work and dedication. No one gets to be a world-class athlete without countless hours of blood, sweat, and tears put into practicing. Most face injuries along the way, they’ve had to overcome tremendous obstacles, and in many ways they may deserve the recognition that they get.

But what we often don’t think about are all the people it took to help get that top athlete to where they are today. The dedicated parents or grandparents who drove them to little league or gymnastics practice when they were little. The coaches and teammates, the managers and agents, the physical trainers and physical therapists, the sponsors and publicists. If we extend it out even further, the janitors who clean the stadiums, or the people who sell tickets or work at the concession stands. The sports engineers who design and develop equipment, technology, and other items that athletes and players use in sports activities, the people who sew the uniforms. And the list could go on and on.

The point is that even incredibly talented, hardworking, and dedicated athletes could not reach the top if it weren’t for a whole entourage of people who helped get them there. 

Each of us, no matter how incredibly gifted we are, need others in order to succeed. 

Beholden to More than Half the World

Martin Luther King, Jr. said it this way:

“We do not finish breakfast without being dependent on more than half of the world. When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge that is provided for us by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Then at the table we drink coffee that is provided for us by a South American, or tea by [someone from China], or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs we are beholden to more than half the world.

We are interdependent on one another for our very survival.

Paul’s Analogy of the Body

Last week as we began our study of 1 Corinthians chapters 12 to 15, we talked about the wide diversity of gifts given to the various members of the Church –  teaching, preaching, gifts of encouragement, healing, great faith, administration – the Holy Spirit has given each and every member of Christ’s church a spiritual gift to use for the common good, and the building up of the Church. And those gifts are not all the same – and that’s a good thing!

Here the Apostle Paul extends the conversation even further by emphasizing that we cannot function properly in our spiritual gifts if we are trying to use them on our own, separately from the rest of the Church community. Just as an athlete cannot function without their entourage, and just as we are indebted to half the world for our very survival before we leave for work or school in the morning, so too our various spiritual gifts only function properly when we are working together in unity as a church, because our gifts are interdependent on one another. 

Paul uses the analogy of a human body, and how the various parts of our body only work when they are connected to the rest of our body. Our foot or hand or ear could not just decide on their own to go off and do their own thing – that wouldn’t work! The various parts of our body only work because they are connected to the whole body. 

In the same way, in order to function properly as a church, we need to work together in unity, using our gifts in synergy with one another, if we are to be a healthy and whole organism. 

We Cannot Function apart from the Body

Today it’s popular for people to say that they are “spiritual but not religious.” Fewer people are attending church, and many people are trying to function as individual followers of Christ without being connected to a church. They say that they love Jesus, but they do not love “organized religion.”

But although it is important for us to cultivate our own individual relationships with Christ, and although it is possible for us to grow spiritually to a certain extent through individual spiritual practices, the reality is that when we only practice our spirituality in isolation, without input from other members of Christ’s Church, then our view of God becomes narrowly focused. We deny other members of the Church the benefit of our gifts, and we fail to receive the benefits of others good gifts.

And in many ways it’s impossible to operate in our spiritual gifts if we try to do them in isolation. If you are gifted at teaching, how can you operate in that gift without others to teach? And if you do try to teach others without someone who is gifted in wisdom or encouragement coming alongside you, then you might end up teaching the wrong thing and leading others astray, or growing discouraged and giving up.

If we try to function alone, in isolation, as an individual follower of Christ without other believers around us to encourage us and uplift us and keep us accountable, and without the synergy that comes from exercising our gifts in unity with one another, our spiritual growth will be stinted, and the whole body will suffer because we have denied others the benefit of our particular gifts.

Paul says,

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many (1 Cor. 12:12-14).

My Gift is Not Better Than Yours

In reminding us of our interdependence on one another, Paul is also teaching us not to think too highly of ourselves or our own individual gifts, but instead to honor and acknowledge each other’s gifts, recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and valuing their gifts as much as our own. 

You see, the problem is that as we begin to discern and develop and grow in our own giftings, we begin to think that our gifts are the most important. We think that everyone should have our gift, and we begin to look down on those who are not gifted in the same ways we are. 

But as Paul says, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” (1Cor. 12:17). 

In other words, if everyone tried to teach, who would preach? And if everyone spoke in tongues, who would give the interpretation? And if everyone spent all their time prophesying, who would administer the affairs of the church?

Not only do we need to individually stay connected to the Body of Christ in order to properly function, but we need to encourage and fan into flame the gifts of people who are very different from us. 

As a preacher, my role is not to train up other preachers. It’s to use my gifts to encourage and train others to grow in their giftings. Teachers are to teach others – not just to teach, but to use their gifts, whatever they may be, for the building up of the church, and for the common good. 

This means that we should never put down someone else’s gifts or disparage them simply because their gifts are different from ours. In fact we should encourage them to grow in their gifts, because we need them, and they need us. 

In order to function properly as a church, we absolutely need the wide diversity of gifts that God has given to us, and we need to value those various gifts and work together in unity if we are to function properly as the Body of Christ.

The Fragmented Body of Christ

Unfortunately, the sad reality is that Christ’s Church is not united, but rather we have become fragmented along the lines of race, and class, and creed, and culture. Political divisions have crept into the church. The observation that Martin Luther King Jr. made in 1963, that 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings is the most segregated hour of the week seems even more true today, almost 60 years later, as Christians of different races and cultures frequently gather separately to worship.

Often this is related to language differences or theological differences, and preferences in styles of worship. And sometimes this is related to the valuing or devaluing of certain gifts. People with certain spiritual gifts often gravitate to churches where their gift is going to be valued. 

Over the past century there have been a number of movements that have tried to encourage Churches to work together. On a global level there’s the World Council of Churches. There are a number of relief organizations that transcend denomination and culture, and try to bring Christians together across various denominations to work for the common good. 

Here in our own community we have the Hampden- Woodberry- Remington- Mount Washington Christian Fellowship, that has brought churches together to work in partnership for 60+ years. 

And here in our own congregation we are seeking to reach a diverse population of people in our community and beyond, and we are seeking to encourage and equip and build up each and every member of the church to utilize their unique spiritual gifts for the building up of the Church, and for the common good. But I recognize that we have a long way to go. 

So Where Do We Start?

We start by learning to appreciate and value the unique contributions of each and every member and participant here in our own congregation. Those who serve behind the scenes are just as important as those who serve up front. Those who cannot make it out to church in person are just as valuable a part of our congregation as those who are gathered here in this sanctuary this morning. Young and old, whether you are a lifelong member or whether you are a first time visitor, your gifts are needed, and your gifts are valuable to the Church. 

We can also start by getting to know Christians who are different from us in our workplaces, neighborhood, at school or a business that you frequent. Maybe you’re not sure if your friend or neighbor or coworker goes to church or is a believer or not – and that’s OK, you can still recognize their unique gifts and contributions! They are still someone who is made in the image of God, and whether they are a follower of Christ yet or not they deserve to be treated with respect. As human beings we are still interdependent on one another. None of us can do it on our own. 

When we treat each other with love and respect – when we recognize the inherent worth and dignity of each and every person with whom we interact, especially those who are different from us and have different gifts from us – we give glory to God and to Jesus Christ, who is the head of the Body – the Church.

Amen

You’ve Got a Gift

January 16th, 2022 homily on 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 by Pastor Galen

We Need Electricians!

When I was growing up, it seemed like every kid in my class wanted to either be a professional sports player when they grew up, or a professional singer, or movie star. Astronaut was probably a close runner-up. 

Nowadays, my kids tell me that everyone in their class wants to be a social media influencer. On social media platforms like Youtube, Instagram, or TikTok, there is fame and fortune to be made. 

But what strikes me is that I’ve never heard a kid say they want to be an actuary, or a computer hardware engineer, even though these are two jobs that are consistently rated as low stress jobs that pay well. Now besides the fact that most of us have no clue what an actuary does (actuaries are basically mathematicians who assess risk for insurance companies), being an actuary just doesn’t sound quite as flashy as being a YouTube influencer. And many of us, especially when we’re young, are drawn to the flashy.

But the reality is that if all of us were movie stars, or athletes, or youtube influencers, and no one in the world did the more boring-sounding jobs, our world as we know it would come to a grinding halt. Or, as someone posted on Twitter recently, “Stop trying to be content creators! We need electricians!”

Gifts of the Spirit

Now the church in Corinth was facing a similar situation. It wasn’t that everyone was trying to become a movie star or athlete or social media influencer. But they were all drawn to the roles in the church that seemed more flashy, or seemed to be more extraordinary or spiritual-sounding. 

The premise behind all of this is that everyone in the church has a role to play. Church is not supposed to be a spectator sport. No one is supposed to just be watching from the sidelines – we all have a role to play. 

But it’s important to understand that we all have a different mix of gifts. And that’s a good thing!  As the Apostle Paul says here in this chapter, some are given the utterance of wisdom, others the utterance of knowledge. This might refer to those who are gifted at preaching, or teaching, or providing wise counsel, or speaking words of confirmation from God. Others are gifted in faith, Paul says. And this is more than just the faithfulness that each of us are called to – here “faith” refers to the ability to do extraordinary things. Related to that, Paul says that some have gifts of healing, or working miracles. 

Others are gifted in prophecy – which doesn’t necessarily involve telling the future – but rather speaking on behalf of God authoritatively. Others are gifted in discernment – which refers to the ability to distinguish between true and false prophecy – definitely a gift that is very much needed in our world today! Still others have the gift of tongues, or the miraculous ability to speak in other languages, including unknown languages, and still others are given the ability to interpret those languages. 

The ability to speak in tongues was sort of the “social media influencer” of Corinth. Everyone wanted that particular gift, because it was flashy, and seemed super spiritual. We can all probably imagine what it must have been like to see someone overtaken by the power of the Holy Spirit, and begin to speak in languages that no one had ever heard before. The Corinithians were drawn to that particular gift, and everyone wanted it – and no doubt some people probably even pretended to have it when they didn’t.

But Paul is saying here – and he’ll get into this more in the next section – that no one gift is more valuable or important than the others, because each of the gifts are given by the Holy Spirit. The same Lord, the same Holy Spirit gives these gifts to us, and they are all given to us for the common good, as we see in verse 7. Which may explain why at various points in history or in different parts of the world different gifts seem to be more common than at other times or places – the Holy Spirit distributes the gifts for the good of all people, not just for the person receiving the gift.

Now the gifts that Paul describes here represent a wide spectrum of gifts – everything from preaching and teaching, to discerning between true and false prophecy. And this is not even an exhaustive list of spiritual gifts! In other places in the New Testament we see other gifts such as administration, and hospitality. 

Paul’s point here is that although there are a wide variety of gifts given to believers, they are all given by the same Holy Spirit. And although they may seem to have different levels of influence, they all have the same source, and they are all equally important and needed in the Church.

What’s My Gift?

Some questions naturally arise when we talk about spiritual gifts. Some of us might be thinking to ourselves, well what’s my gift? Do I already have one? If so, how do I know what it is? And if I don’t have one, how do I get one? I wondered this for many years myself.

  1. First of all, Paul tells us here “to each is given.” 

Paul doesn’t say “to some,” or “to many.” But rather he says “to each.” And so, whether you know what your gift is or not, if you are a follower of Christ, and you have the Holy Spirit living in you, then you have in fact been given a gift by the Holy Spirit. No question about it. The Holy Spirit is generous, and gives gifts to each and every one of us – no exception. (The Holy Spirit is sort of like Oprah – “you get a gift, you get a gift, and you get a gift!”)

  1. So how do we know our particular spiritual gift?

Someone has said, “There are two great moments in a person’s life: the moment you were born and the moment you realize why you were born.” For some of us, there may be a specific moment when it clicks – when you all of a sudden realize what it is that God has uniquely called or equipped you to do. 

For others this may happen much more gradually. Some of our gifts might take a while to mature to the point where they’re even recognizable, and may even be that others may see our gifts in us before we see them. 

For others of us, we may piece it together more logically. It may be a combination of your personality, the things you enjoy, or seeing a great need in the world, and knowing that you could help meet that need. Preacher and writer Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” 

This sort of awareness often comes about through deep study and reflection on the needs of the world, and a mature understanding of what truly brings us joy and satisfaction. This is not the sort of understanding that comes from following what’s popular or flashy, but rather an awareness of the deepest longings of our heart. It comes from letting God break our hearts for the things that break God’s heart, and considering how God may be calling us to respond accordingly. 

There are, of course, a number of spiritual gifts inventories and assessments that can be helpful, and you can find many of these online. And we typically do one of these in our confirmation and membership classes. But remember that these sorts of inventories and assessments are best done in community, with other people – and we should always seek input from trusted friends, advisors, and mentors. 

  1. How do we Grow and Develop our Gifts?

All of our gifts can deepen and grow over the course of our lifetime. It is possible to grow in faith, and wisdom, and in the ability to discern truth from falsehood, for example. But in order to grow in them, we must practice them regularly.

Practicing can mean “carrying out or performing a particular activity habitually or regularly.” But it can also mean “performing an activity or a skill repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency.” And I’m using this word “practices” in both senses of the word.

One way we can grow and develop our gifts is to practice using them with people with whom we are close – trusted friends or spiritual colleagues – people who can give us honest feedback and critique. 

This past summer as part of my seminary program I was asked to invite a committee of people to give me feedback on a weekly basis on my sermons on Sunday mornings. Several people here in the congregation were given a survey to fill out each week that involved feedback on such things as my delivery, how Biblically grounded the sermon was, whether the sermon clearly communicated the Good news of the Gospel, whether it displayed pastoral sensitivity, etc. Each week the survey results were collected anonymously and my mentor and I reviewed and discussed them together. This was an incredibly humbling experience, but one that helped me grow in my effectiveness as a preacher and communicator. 

Asking for and receiving this type of feedback may feel strange, and yet it is essential if we want to grow and develop in our effectiveness. 

Imagine if you believed you had the gift of healing, for example, and you consistently prayed for people to be healed, but they never told you whether or not they were healed! You may grow discouraged and stop praying, believing that your prayers were never answered. Or what if you thought you had the gift of wisdom, but the wise counsel you gave to others was consistently flawed or misguided. Wouldn’t it be better to hear that from a trusted friend or colleague? Wouldn’t it be better to hear that from someone close to you before you continue dispensing advice that leads others down a wrong path? As humbling as it would be to receive that sort of feedback, it’s important for us to know how the use of our gifts are impacting others so that we can grow in our gifts and use them effectively for the glory of God, and for the common good.

We can help one another by giving honest feedback when asked, and by sharing the ways in which the prayers of the community have been answered, and by encouraging one another and sharing positive examples of how someone else’s gift blessed or encouraged us. The point of all of us is that God would be glorified, that the Church would be built up, that those who feel distant from God may experience God’s love and grace in their lives, and that all of us would grow in maturity and in faith in God.

My challenge and encouragement to us, then, this morning is to recognize that each and every one of us has been given gifts of the Spirit. And these gifts, while different from one another, are all for the building up of the Church, and the blessing of the world. 

And so may we celebrate the diverse gifts that have been given to us. And may each of us strive to find that place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. May we practice the gifts God has given to us – for the good of others, and so that we can grow more effective in the use of our gifts. And may we share and receive feedback from one another in love as we seek to use our gifts for the betterment of the church and for the common good.

Amen.

Well Pleased

1.9.21 homily on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 by Jonathan Snack

What does it take for someone to be well pleased with you?

From a young age, we pick up on when our parents or guardians are pleased with us. For example, my mother was more pleased with me when I did the dishes or took out the trash, and less pleased with me when she would find me staying up late playing Gameboy under my covers.

We learn, whether that is their intention or not, that people are pleased with us when we do something productive or good.

As we went through school, we saw teachers were usually pleased with students who were both smart and well-behaved. Coaches, pleased with athletes who performed.

In our jobs and duties, we are valuable through our production. How well we can produce for our company, how orderly we can keep our house, etc.

I even see this in our older population, or those suffering from sickness. There is often a desire to be as little a “burden” as possible, and some will not ask for help when it is needed.

Our culture puts value on those that can contribute. And at its base level this is not a bad thing. The plumber that drives to your house and fixes your leaking pipe is a lot better than one who never shows up! Society functions through people’s contributions.

However, I do believe that this emphasis on the idea that productivity = value creeps into our walk with God. When we look to elevate our value to God through our work, or tie God’s value to the work we want to see done, we can end up disappointed.

John the Baptist 15-17

Our Scripture for today starts with John the Baptist, but we won’t stay there long. And the reason we won’t stay talking about John is from his own instructions.

John was preaching and teaching, v.3 “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” The people who were following him began to question if he was the Messiah, the Christ. The one who was coming to set them free. John sees this happening and says “listen. I am baptizing you with water. You can commit to a life of following God in repentance. But Jesus, he is the one who gives you the power to do so”. Jesus is the one you are looking for. The one that you should follow. So let’s follow John’s advice and look at Jesus.

Jesus 21-22

In these two verses, there are a lot of things happening and we could probably make a sermon

series about just these. We see that Jesus was baptized! Why would perfect Jesus need to be baptized? We see Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father talking from heaven. That’s the trinity! There is a lot that could be said about the trinity!

But today we are going to sit in the words that God says to Jesus. A voice came from heaven “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Why? Why is God well pleased with Jesus? How many times has Jesus preached before this moment? Once as a kid in the temple? How many miracles has Jesus performed? According to Scripture, none. So far, the only thing that Jesus has done is been baptized. And God is well pleased with him.

What pleases God?

If I am honest, this makes me a little uncomfortable and it also feels out of place. Throughout Scripture we see times where God expresses his displeasure with people.

If we go back a few verses, in 7-14, John is talking to the crowd that has gathered before him and he warns them saying “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance… Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”

The crowd asks him what they need to do. Summed up, John states that those who have should share with those who do not have. Those who are in power should not abuse those they have power over.

John makes it pretty clear that a life of repentance includes living in a specific way. And this is not something new! When the Israelites were sacrificing lame animals instead of their best, through the prophet Malachi God says “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands.”

But just good sacrifices are not enough. In Micah, as he warns them about God’s coming judgment, he asks “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams?”. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

James 1:27 – “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

I look at all of this and I go “what do you want from me God? How can I please you? Do I just need to be baptized? Is it that, and sacrifice and justice? Was Jesus doing those things before his baptism?

It’s frustrating when you do not know how to please someone! So what is it that pleases God?

I believe that we see in a Scripture it is a heart that is oriented towards God.

Jesus didn’t need to be baptized as a sign of repentance. He was baptized as a way of saying I am entering into the ministry that my Father has laid out for me. My heart is yours God. My will is yours.

The tension

I also believe though that there is tension here because God has shown us that a heart oriented towards him is not stagnant. And I think this tension can often lead us into one of two camps.

I believe that there are people who are really good at living in “God being pleased with them”. I have experienced this and seen it. Those of us here get the idea that Jesus has saved us from our sins. We understand that God loves us and we do not need to perform to earn that love. We can often fall into what I would call “works complacency”. When we are in this camp, we don’t want to get caught up in things like “social justice” because we just need to focus on the gospel, and the gospel says that it is faith in God that saves us.

It is true that our works do not save us, that we cannot earn our way into heaven, but it is also true that God has called us to plead the case of the oppressed, to visit the orphan and the widow, to share with those who do not have.

The other camp, something that I have both seen and experienced, can forget that God is pleased with us, and other followers of God, simply because he loves us and we have accepted his love. We read about God’s heart for the marginalized and see how it is woven throughout history, song, law, and prophecy! We live our lives in a way that examines how we are living and asking are there changes we could make that would make us a better neighbor?

In my observation and experience, we can get angry and frustrated with those that do not see the pressing need for justice and reconciliation within our communities. I know personally, I have gotten angry with God for allowing his people to proclaim his name while actively or passively taking part in systems of injustice.

And there is truth there as well. We see God use the prophets to speak to his people, communicating his displeasure with them for ignoring the cases of the weak, ignored, and marginalized. We see in Jesus’s life how he purposefully pursued those that were ignored in society.

Back to Jesus

Like every good Sunday School question, the answer to this is Jesus.  Jesus walked that line of tension. What did Jesus do after he was baptized? Jesus did not say “God I am so glad you are well pleased with me” and then return home. Jesus both said “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” and hung out with lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, and Samaritans.

Application

For those of us today who walk with Jesus, God is pleased with you and loves you simply for being his. And that is freeing. It is freeing because, like I said earlier, so much of our culture puts an emphasis on production.

We do not need to produce something for God to be pleased with us. If you are walking with him, he is already pleased with you.

What is also beautiful about this, is that we can pursue good works in a way without pressure!

The “success” of those works are not our ticket into God’s love!

A place where I really saw this mentality was in my experience with InterVarsity. We would have a Bible Study event where one new person would show up, hear the gospel, and never come back. There would be both a celebration that someone heard the gospel and talk about how to make events better. Celebration because Jesus’s name was proclaimed, and a desire to improve out of a love of God, not pressure to please him.

We are called to lead lives that mirror how Jesus lived his life. The starting point for a life like Jesus is a heart oriented towards God, enjoying his pleasure.

Amen.

Carry the Light

January 2nd, 2022 homily on Jeremiah 31:7-14 and John 1:1-18 by Pastor Galen

A New Year?

Happy New Year! Many people are saying that it really doesn’t feel like a new year, that it feels like nothing has changed so far. Personally, I spent the first two waking hours of this new year standing outside in the rain, waiting in line to get a COVID test. How’s your New Year going so far? (fortunately I had a good umbrella, and even more fortunately the COVID test result was negative). 

So far 2022 feels like it might be a repeat of 2021, or even 2020. My kids have even been jokingly calling this year 2020 – part 2. The rainy, dreary weather here in Maryland between Christmas and New Nears, and the surge in COVID cases and the omicron variant certainly doesn’t help. Last week even my 5-year-old said that this year it didn’t really feel like Christmas. She said, “how can it rain on Christmas?”

Not All That Different

I’ve been thinking that perhaps this is how it felt for many of the people surrounding Jesus after he was born – Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men. Sure, the time right before and after Jesus’s birth was a rather exciting time for Joseph and Mary, to say the least – an unexpected pregnancy, having to flee to Egypt after Jesus’s birth to escape the wrath of King Herod. But then they came back home, and life would have seemed rather normal for many years, as Jesus grew up, and went to school, and learned his father’s carpentry trade.

For the shepherds, too, it may have seemed like life just sort of carried on as normal. Sure, there was the flurry of excitement when the angels appeared to them and when they rushed to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus and told everyone what had happened. But my guess is that after that they probably just went back to tending their flocks of sheep every night. 

And for the magi – after their epic journey to visit the newborn king, went back home, and life would have gotten back to normal – whatever “normal” life was like for the magi! 

Now sure, Joseph and Mary, and the shepherds, and the magi believed that Jesus was going to change the world as they knew it. But the first 30 years of his life probably seemed pretty normal. We get only a small glimpse into his childhood in the Bible. We know that when he was twelve years old his parents took him on a trip to the temple in Jerusalem, and that while he was there he astounded the teachers with his insight. And yet we really don’t hear anything about him until he turned thirty years old. 

The Bible refers to Jesus as a tekton (Mark 6:3), which is usually translated “carpenter,” but it’s really a more generic term for “builder.” And so it seems that Jesus spent the majority of his years on this earth building or making things. 

In her book Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep, Anglican priest and author Tish Harrison Warren writes about all those years that Jesus spent as a builder. She says, 

God came to earth and apparently thought it was worth his while to take some wood or stone or metal and make something. What did he make? We have no idea. Apparently nothing earth-shattering enough to have kept around. But in this dark world, where men and women were dying, where people were suffering, where injustice raged in a vast and violent empire, God became flesh and built some furniture. During all those decades he wasn’t preaching, healing or clearing out temples. He wasn’t starting a movement or raising the dead. The light came into the darkness and did ordinary work.

But she goes on to suggest that

All [italics mine] of Jesus’ work brought redemption. Not just the work that awed the crowds – the feeding of the multitude, the Sermon on the Mount, the raising of Jaurus’s daughter, but also his quiet craft.” And she goes on to describe Jesus’s life, which was a rhythm of prayer, and ministry, and work.

And yet, although Jesus lived the majority of the years of his life in relative obscurity, he did indeed change the world – so much so that even our calendar system points to Jesus’s time on this earth. We count the years based upon when Jesus was born, rather than when Caesar or any other early ruler was born. And here we are gathered today, 2,000 years later, to worship Jesus, just as the shepherds and magi did, and to study his teachings and learn from his wisdom, just as the teachers of the law did when he was twelve years old sitting in the temple. 

His Life was Light

The Gospel of John describes Jesus’s life and ministry using the poetic imagery of light, which is an apt description, given what we’ve been talking about. It’s taken right from the mouth of Jesus, who claimed to be the Light of the World (John 8:12). John says that “in [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).

Jesus’s life was like a candle that could not be snuffed out. His life burned quietly much of the time, and yet no matter where he went, he brought light. To those who were in despair, his light was a gentle glow that brought hope. To those who were mourning, his light brought joy. To those who were feeling unloved, it brought a gentle warmth that reassured them of God’s love for them.

And wherever Jesus went he brought peace – true peace – not the absence of conflict, but shalom peace that seeks to get to the root of the issue, as we talked about during Advent. During those times, Jesus’s life was like a spotlight that shed light on the corrupt religious and political systems of his day. It illuminated the wicked thoughts and evil actions of those who sought to wield their power in ways that hurt and abused others. Jesus’s life brought to light those things that others sought to keep hidden. Sometimes his mere presence caused people to completely change their entire lifestyle – as in the case of Zaccheaus, when Jesus simply came to his house. Other times, Jesus’s light was glaringly bright, as when he turned the tables over in the temple in Jerusalem, bathing the entire corrupt system in light so as to expose the grave injustices that were occurring. 

No matter where he went, Jesus brought life, and truth, and light. 

The True Light, Which Enlightens Everyone

John refers to Jesus as “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). This is not teaching a universal salvation – as though everyone has the light of Christ inside of them. In fact, John points out that even though Jesus “was in the world…the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10-11). 

But rather, Jesus’s life reveals the truth of what is really in our hearts. How we respond to Jesus says a lot about who we really are. Are we intrigued and drawn in by Jesus, or do we run the other way? Are we compelled to follow him, to seek to model our life after his, or do we simply ignore those things that he said that don’t fit with what we want for our lives?

There are many people who claim the name of Christ and yet twist his words to fit their own agenda. Much damage has been done in the world by people who claim to be Christ-followers. And yet when their lives are placed alongside the life of Christ – when we allow Christ’s light to illuminate their actions – we see that they are in no way following Christ.

On the other hand, we see people who may reject the label of Christian, but who love Jesus and seek to model their lives after him. They seek to be Christlike in their thoughts and words and deeds. 

But no matter who we are, or how we identify ourselves, the light of Jesus’s life illuminates our lives. When we compare ourselves with Christ, we see who we really are, and who we are not.

Children of God

John then goes on to say that to those who receive Jesus, “who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12). Not just “created beings.” Not robots who are forced to carry out the functions of the creator who made us. But rather, “children of God” – with all of the rights and privileges that come along with that status. John says that those who receive Christ, who believe in his name, are given the power to become children of God. 

This is the vision that Jeremiah had in Jeremiah 31 – of the remnant of Israel being brought back from the farthest parts of the earth – with weeping and consolations, and with God being their Father. Except that in Christ, this family has been extended not just to the nation of Israel, but to anyone and everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. 

The fact that we have been given the power to become children of God is indeed cause for great celebration, as Jeremiah prophesied. For in Christ we have received “grace upon grace,” as John says in verse 16. “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

We Carry the Light

The proper response to such amazing grace as this is to dedicate our lives to Christ, in response to the amazing love that he has shown us. This is in fact what it means to be children of God. As children of God, as those who have believed in Christ’s name, we carry on Christ’s mission in the world. We are called to carry Christ’s light. In fact, in Matthew 5:14, Jesus even said that we – his followers are the light of the world. As Christ is and was the light of the world, now we as Christ’s followers are to bear Christ’s light to those around us.

We do that when we tell the truth, and when we work for justice. when we shed light on those places where power has been abused. We spread Christ’s light when we do acts of mercy – bringing God’s hope and love to those who are downtrodden or in need. We do that when we show kindness to strangers. 

We can even bear Christ’s light in the midst of our normal, everyday activities in life – whether at work, or school, or at home with our families, whether we’re working with wood, or stone, or computers, or food, or whatever it is that we do. If we are truly children of God, then even our seemingly normal, ordinary activities are a participation in the redemptive work of Christ in this world, because we bear the light of Christ wherever we go.

Into the New Year

And so, as we enter into this new year that may not seem all that different from last year, may we trust that God can work even in the midst of seemingly ordinary, everyday activities. May we recommit ourselves to being bearers of Christ’s light in this world, wherever we go, and whatever we do. May we seek to bring hope, and joy, and peace and love wherever we go. May we seek to tell the truth, even when it is difficult. 

May we have the courage to speak up when called to do so. May we pray and work for peace – true peace, not just the absence of conflict, but peace that involves justice. And may we show mercy, and love, and kindness even to strangers. As bearers of Christ’s light, may we spread that light to others. And as people who have received grace upon grace, may we too be agents of grace in this world. 

Unto Us A Child Is Born

December 24th, 2021 Christmas Eve homily on Luke 2:8-14 by Pastor Galen

Why Shepherds?

Many of us who didn’t grow up around sheep probably tend to think of sheep as these warm, cuddly, soft animals that are always clean and smell great. If we could, we’d just to just hold a nice cuddly little lamb in our arms. We imagine sheep grazing in picturesque landscapes, lush green fields, where the weather is always beautiful, the sun is always shining, and the nights are clear and crisp, but not too cold. 

At the same time, we romanticize what it must have been like to be a shepherd in Bible times. We imagine the shepherds with their clean white robes, lying there in the lush green grass, holding adorable little lambs, their hair always immaculately in place. Just a wonderful, peaceful existence – enjoying nature, rescuing little lost lambs, and living a life of solitude and rest.

And so we might wonder, why did the angels disturb these shepherd’s peaceful sleep to tell them that the Christ Child was born? And why did the angels specifically choose shepherds, of all people, to announce the glad tidings of Jesus’s birth?

The Wild, Wild West (of Judea)

The reality, however, is that sheep are not necessarily always perfectly clean. And the weather conditions around 1st Century Palestine were not always perfect. And shepherds were not able to always keep their robes clean and pristine, and their hair was not always immaculately in place. 

Sheep herding was actually a rather dirty and smelly occupation. Not only were shepherds around smelly animals all day, but they probably weren’t able to take showers or wash their clothes very often. 

And shepherding was not for the faint of heart. Living out in the fields meant that sheep herders had to endure harsh weather conditions. Shepherds did indeed often have to rescue little lost lambs — lambs who had fallen down jagged cliffs, or who had been attacked by wolves or bears. In some ways we might think of 1st Century Palestinian shepherds kind of like the cowboys and cowgirls of the Old West — rugged, independent, accustomed to rough working conditions, not afraid to get down and dirty.

The reality of shepherding in the time when Jesus was such that it really wasn’t possible for shepherds to live up to the religious ritual obligations of the day. Shepherds probably couldn’t take time away from their fields to go to the temple to offer sacrifices very often, even though, ironically, the shepherds near Bethlehem may have been raising the sheep that others would offer as sacrifices at the temple! 

Even if they were to go to the temple, they might have been turned away, since they were generally considered unclean by society — not just physically unclean, but religiously unclean according to the very strict religious and cultural expectations of the day.

This Shall Be a Sign

And so it was very significant that the angels specifically appeared to the shepherds that night. Because if they had appeared to the religious elite, or the politically powerful, or the inordinately wealthy, then shepherds back then, and perhaps we ourselves today, might have always wondered if Jesus had really come for us

But the angels said that Jesus’s birth was cause for great joy for all the people. And if that included shepherds, then surely that includes everyone!

Still the shepherds were probably inclined to believe that if they went to visit this amazing baby who had been born, they would  get turned away at the door. After all, if they weren’t allowed into the temple, why should they be allowed to visit the Savior of the world? They probably pictured him being born in a palace, lying in a cradle covered in gold. They imagined that he and his family were being guarded by armed guards, and that they would be laughed out of town for trying to come and see the Christ child.

And so the angel offered them a sign so that they could know that they would be welcome to see the baby Jesus. The sign was that they would find the baby Jesus lying in a manger.

Now, a manger sounds kind of fancy to our ears, but it wasn’t. A manger was a feed box – typically filled with food for animals to eat. Not really where we would imagine placing a newborn baby.

But the majority of people in Jesus’s day – including shepherds – were quite poor. They couldn’t afford a lot of different furniture that only served one purpose, and so they usually found multiple for anything they owned.

For shepherds, it would have been quite impractical to haul a crib or bed out into the fields. So shepherds would regularly use one of the most readily available resources when putting their babies down to sleep at night – often using a feeding trough, or manger, filled with fresh clean hay as a crib. Even in small towns among the working class people of Jesus’s day this would not have been uncommon. Only in palaces or the homes of the extremely wealthy would babies have been laid in cribs or cradles. 

And so when the angel told the shepherds that they would find the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a feeding trough – what was shocking and surprising was not the uniqueness of Jesus’s living conditions from their perspective – but that the Savior of the world had been born – not in a palace guarded by armed guards and lying in a golden cradle – but in living conditions very similar to their own!

This is perhaps why the angel said that the fact that they would find the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger would be a sign for them. It was a sign for them that Jesus’s birth was indeed good news of great joy for all people 

– including shepherds! 

Today, this might be sort of like the angel telling us that we might find the baby Jesus lying in a cradle bought at Walmart or Target, and dressed in hand-me-down clothes from a thrift store! It was evidence that Jesus came for each and every one of us, no matter our station in life. The fact that shepherds would find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger reassured them that they would not get turned away at the door, but rather they would be welcomed – and as we’ll see in our next lesson, they even had a special role to fulfill in spreading that good news to others!

Unto Us a Child is Born

And friends, Jesus came for each and every one of us as well! “Unto Us A Child is Born!” Unto us a savior has been given. On our own we were lost and without hope, separated from God because of our sinful fallen nature. But into this world of grief and sorrow, God sent Jesus – the light of the world – to show us the way to live and to love, and ultimately to give his life on the cross for us. 

And so this evening, let us continue to journey along with the shepherds as they journey to Bethlehem to see the Christ child, and let us too rejoice in and proclaim the good news to all the world that unto us – each and every one of us – all of us – a child has been born!

Amen!